Lady Frances Carfax

Watson being assaulted while looking for Lady Frances.
Illustration by Alec Ball.

The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax

Wait, didn’t we just do this story? There’s the bearded man pursuing the young damsel. He’s forgotten his bicycle this time, and she’s maybe not so young, but … And he turns out to be a good guy, not the villain – except some commentators ask, What kind of good guy is this? More like a stalker. And Holmes and Watson leave him alone with the chloroformed damsel – stop.

So is this a rewrite of The Solitary Cyclist? In some ways. There’s the “savage” bearded guy who isn’t really a villain (just a stalker, ha ha). And then the really threatening guy, Dr. Shlessinger, this story’s version of Roaring Jack Woodley. Except Roaring Jack was, well, roaring, and Dr. Shlessinger is studying the Biblical Midianites. (Descendants of Abraham, by the way, and there’s an old Abrahams in this story – and that Biblical subtext just sort of peters out. But let’s see, the Midianites were enemies of the Israelites, the Chosen People, so that suggests … I don’t know, that Dr. Shlessinger is one of the bad guys?)

No adultery here: One can see an adulterous subtext in “The Solitary Cyclist”: the damsel is engaged but has to fight off various suitors. Well, maybe that’s not quite adulterous, but it does seem to reflect Conan Doyle’s quasi-adulterous situation at the time of the Cyclist. Now, though, times have changed, there’s no offstage fiancé, Lady Frances is totally unattached – a big deal is made of that, in fact. She’s the solitary one, a stray chicken in danger of being eaten up by foxes.

Male chauvinism? Leslie Klinger sees male chauvinism in this depiction, a reaction perhaps to the New Woman of this period, the early feminists, suffragettes, and so forth. Such women are dangerous, Holmes says, but when he goes on to explain, it seems the danger is mostly to them, so I’m not sure the story is painting women in a negative light, except that it’s perhaps suggesting they can’t manage on their own and need protection.

Protection, protection, protection: Actually, if anyone is portrayed in a negative light, it’s men, isn’t it? One of them is a bearded savage, and the other is a con man after Lady F’s jewels who is willing to go as far as murder. What kind of world is that for a woman to have to deal with?

Or for a Watson: Poor Watson. He’s feeling old and rheumatic, and look how Holmes treats him: Go to Lausanne, track down Lady Frances, keep me informed – But then I’ll show up unexpectedly and tell you you’ve done everything wrong (but has he? most commentators say no). And for good measure you’ll get beaten up by the savage stalker, who I’ll then tell you is the good guy. And the apparently good guy, that reverend studying the Midianites, turns out to be the bad guy. What a nightmare Watson finds himself in. Is this story a picture of a world gone nightmarish – or Turkish?

Turkish bath: A Turkish bath – what’s that doing here? Of course, it could just be a Turkish bath; they were common enough. Still, it makes me think of associations with the word “Turk”: for instance, the old slang sense of Turk meaning a barbarous man who treats people, especially women, badly. That does seem to be a motif in this story: barbarous men treating people badly. The Honourable (Honourable!) Philip Green, the nefarious Dr. Shlessinger, and the unfair, bullying Sherlock Holmes mistreating Watson, as the other two mistreat (or seem to mistreat) Lady Frances.

Who’s the client? At first it seems to be Lady F’s old governess (Miss Dobney, another unattached woman), or is it the family? But what family? Holmes says Lady Frances is “the last derelict” of what used to be a “goodly fleet.” Very naval, but doesn’t it mean there’s no one in her family left? It’s the disappearance of the aristocracy, that old foil for Holmes, but now is he, is Doyle, missing them? Perhaps they come back with the Honourable Philip Green, who is called the client at the end of the story. What is going on? Is it Miss Dobney or Philip Green? The unattached woman or the savage beast?

Multiple unattached women: Perhaps I should mention Rose Spender, the 90-year-old from the workhouse. An old nurse of Dr. Shlessinger’s wife, or so Dr. S says (but do we believe the story?). But maybe the point is to remind us of the Brixton Workhouse: is that where unattached women end up? Oh, the dangers: the aristocracy is vanishing, women are on their own, and bearded men assault Dr. Watson. What is the world coming to? And when you try to make sense of it and send off your findings to your “illustrious friend,” what do you get? Bizarre requests for information about Dr. Shlessinger’s left ear and then a general upbraiding for making “a very pretty hash” of things. Ugh.

Holmes’s blunders: Or so Dr. Shlessinger (aka Holy Peters) calls them – but they’re not blunders either. Not really. Holmes expects to find Lady Frances in the casket; he does not, at first, but only because he is premature: she will be in there eventually. So it’s only technically a blunder, and technicalities are being used to mock those who are essentially right, in this case Holmes. First we saw Watson unfairly accused of blundering; now it is Holmes. It can happen to the best of us; so there. But does that provide comfort? It still leaves Lady Frances undiscovered, at least for a moment. But then she is found and revived, so all is right with the world, except the Shlessingers escape, and Lady F is left with the man she was trying to escape from. Ah, well.

And more Turks: Philip Green is the son of the Admiral who fought the battle of the Sea of Azov in the Crimean War, the war in which England was on the side of the Turks. How can that be, England allied with Turkey? A sign of the disruption of the times, and perhaps of the fact that it is a perilous thing to leave Lady Frances with the Honourable, since he’s the son of a Turkish ally. Oh, well, perhaps we need to find comfort in religion (smiting the Midianites) or solidarity with the workers (as Holmes demonstrates by dressing up like one). Or perhaps we should just resign ourselves to feeling old, or go for a Turkish bath (ha ha), something to alter our situation, an “alterative,” as Dr. Watson puts it, and who better to prescribe for us than the old doctor?

Silent Women: These women are not only unattached, but silent. In fact, the silence of Lady Frances is what triggers the detective story. But her maid, Marie Devine (aha, more religion?) is silent too, though her lover gets a word in (well, we hear a summary of Marie’s ideas from Dr. Watson, but it’s not the same, is it?). Only Annie Fraser, Dr. Shlessinger’s wife, speaks dialogue. Women are endangered and silenced in the story. Such Turks we are to them.

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK. Also at MX Publishing.  Originally written for the Stormy Petrels of British Columbia.

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